Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet - review

The local ladies book club had assigned Kate Atkinson's "Case Histories: A Novel." And I gamely volunteered to lead the discussion.

Alas. We are a group of Mormon ladies. And Kate Atkinson's engaging tale involved quite a bit of sordid gore and guilty sex.

So I suggested a last minute selection switch, recommending Jamie Ford's bestselling "Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet."

"Hotel" is the 1942 story of star-crossed lovers who, unfortunately for them, are younger (12) than Romeo and Juliet and not merely from warring families, but warring nations (Keiko is Japanese and Henry is Chinese).

To complicate matters further, Keiko and Henry live in Seattle, a city whose citizens of Japanese origin are about to be rounded up and shipped off to internment camps.
Keiko is a child of American-born parents, making the internment that much more confusing and senseless in the eyes of the reader.

Henry's father wages his own one-man battle against the Japanese - raising money to help the Chinese fight Japan abroad and peddling away local Japanese properties at pennies to the dollar. When he discovers the perfidy of his son (loving a Japanese girl), he disowns the child.

Unlike Romeo and Juliet, no one commits suicide in this tale of forbidden love. And the love is about as innocent as forbidden love gets.

For those of us who lived prior to 1980, however, the tale is clearly fantasy. We remember when marriage between whites and asians was forbidden. The state didn't have to forbid marriage between Japanese and Chinese because the animosity ran too deep, particularly for Chinese children orphaned by Japanese aggression, as was the case for the father of our fictional Henry.

But even though I knew it was impossible for Henry and Keiko to be together, I still wanted to know how he lost Keiko and ended up with the Chinese Ethel. I was surprised how Jaime Ford kept the story and tension going long after Keiko has been taken from Seattle, and how successfully he weaves together the WW II story with the 1986 life of the widowed Henry, searching Japanese artifacts left in the basement of the Panama Hotel hoping to find something Keiko left behind.

My older book group fellows found anachronisms I overlooked (e.g., online support groups in 1986?), but I enjoyed the book.

My only irritation was when Jaime's afterward claimed he was had not imputed his own values to the tale. Alas, I knew I was in the hands of an author who decried the US actions against residents and citizens of Japanese descent and who believes all races are valuable.

So, Jaime, your biases are showing. But they are beautiful biases, so perhaps I shouldn't point them out, lest you hitch them up out of sight.


Okishdu said...

It sounds like an interesting book. Were you able to listen to it? If so, how did you like the MP3 version.

Meg Stout said...

I read the first bit on my Kindle, but "read" the rest by listening to it (on the fast setting).

I thought the reader did a great job with the accents and the foreign language portions, particularly the way Henry's parents respond to him.

Interestingly, I felt the style was clunky when I read the opening, but when I was listening, the clunkiness disappeared.